Wednesday 30 November 2016
Stage 3 is no doubt the hardest of the 6 stages of Global Limit’s Ancient Khmer Path foot race and Stage 4 starts all too soon. For any future competitors, no matter how hard it is, do not quit on Stage 3 (easier said . . .)!
I wish I’d known in 2015 . . . Stage 4 has an incredible finish: the Kulen waterfalls, fried bananas, coconut sellers, fried rice and chicken. Oh, and BBQ Pringles. And having not long finished running for 39 miles, Stage 4’s 18 miles would be a doddle (!). After a swim and a wash in the waterfalls you’d be refreshed enough to leap out and immediately do Stage 3 all over again.
(That’s a massive exaggeration.)
Despite how hard Stage 3 had been I woke up feeling pretty good. My heels were still a bloody, sore mess and my legs were tired but they’d soon feel fine once we got going. Tent-mate Haruki was calm personified: you’d think he’d only just turned up.
There was just enough time to skirt the outer perimeter of the Beng Mealea temple for a few pics before lining up for a group photo: we were all still smiling! And then the off, straight down the centuries old stone promenade and out onto the roads a short while for 18.5 miles/29.7km. A welcome ‘rest day’. All I could think about was jumping into the waterfalls. Having almost reached a limit the previous day I found myself not wanting to push too hard now for the rest of the race in fear of blowing up. My goal was to finish. I would come to regret this pedestrian approach on Stage 6 . . .
Passing through a number of villages there was plenty of opportunity to get cold drinks. Eventually we turned away from the busier areas and were back into quiet countryside. Up ahead I saw what looked like a very large hill . . . then I remembered a couple of details . . . the Kulen waterfalls are in the Mount Kulen National Park . . . and that phrase has the word ‘mount’ in it . . . and waterfalls tend to cascade down from tall things . . . which meant that if I were running along a flat bit of countryside . . . I would need to climb up something to get to the top of the Park where we’d be staying the night . . .
The ascent was just 420 metres high, but that’s still tough on a hot day. The gradient was steep in places and the sun was bearing down on our backs. I was soon scorching again as the stony, narrow path across boulders wound its way ever up, but at least I was freely sweating; I guzzled plenty of water. Eventually, the top appeared . . . and what an amazing view! Cambodia being a very flat country with infrequent heights this was a great opportunity to appreciate miles upon miles of the flat green landscape in all its sunny glory. The view and the ever so slight cool breeze made the climb up well worthwhile.
By now I was well on the way to the Kulen waterfalls. But first the track continued to climb more gently, zig-zagging its way up. There was a big area of land where trees had been logged to death which was parched and dry in the by now baking sun. Which meant I was baked too.
As luck would have it a house had the familiar red ice box sat outside it with a group of about 6 or 7 young kids manning it. They must have known we were coming.
“2 dollar”, said the oldest kid aged about 10, the Head Negotiator, in response to asking how much for a cold water. The dollar or $1.50 going rate at the bottom of the mountain had experienced inflationary pressures on the way up.
His Second-in-Command, sat beside him, gave a cheeky boy’s grin and put his hand over his mouth a little too late.
“Whhaaattt???!!!!” A couple of the really young kids giggled away innocently. I sensed a deal was to be had.
They all went quiet, smiling away at me (apart from the Head Negotiator) with pristine white teeth, but I wasn’t going to be done over by a 10 year old. I pulled out another dollar.
“3 dollar. Coke and water.” Which seemed fair.
Second-in-Command, aged about 6, yelped: “Yeah!” But Head Negotiator shot him a glance and smiled at me. Second-in-Command was overruled.
“4 dollar. Coke and 2 water. Cold!”
Eh!?!?!? Something about the maths here didn’t add up but I was too knackered and confused to care. It was too hot to think. I just wanted cold drinks. And it was just 4 dollars. I handed over 4 dollars. The two youngest kids, a couple of girls, punched the air and exclaimed what I assumed was Cambodian for “Yes!!!”
We all laughed and smiled away, and I hiked on up the track. Bless ’em.
A few more people appeared, all exceptionally friendly and polite. Hands were raised in greeting; the kids came out with their “Hello! Bye-bye!”
Outside a tiny house were sat 3 young kids. I motioned to see if I could share a bit of their wall and sat down to open my can of (now warm) Coke. They were fascinated. I took out my camera and took a selfie, this piece of equipment clearly something they’d never seen before. They seemed a bit uncertain about this camera lark. As I passed the camera to them to take a look at the pic they suddenly bolted, with the youngest in tears. I was mortified! Then again, I was caked in 5 days worth of sweat and grime with oddly stained clothes and stank.
Mum came out and I showed my camera, she laughed and pointed her arm towards me and the camera: “Take a look!”, I guess she was saying. They nervously approached and I just gave the camera to the eldest. They wandered off into their yard to take a look and their mouths dropped; then they erupted into gales of laughter, pointing at the picture. The youngest tore off running around the front yard in hysterical laughter. The little girl just jumped up and down on the spot laughing and pointing at the picture. After a time the eldest passed the camera back to me with a big grin.
I finished my Coke and waved: “Bye bye!”
Not long now to the falls! Either side of me the vegetation was impossibly thick. In the distance I could hear what sounded like electronic shrieking and I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. As I got nearer the noise was a major assault on my ears, not like anything I’d heard before: a very high-pitched cacophony was hurting my ear drums. Clearly it was more than one source, a group of insects of some description. Whatever it was it was damn loud, hidden away into the thick jungle. I couldn’t get away fast enough and restarted a run.
Further up I was reminded of how heavily land-mined the Kulen Park area had been not so long ago. To this day, some of the more impenetrably thick parts of the jungle very likely still contain mines. To my left I saw a carving of a skull and crossbones, the red and white paint background of the skull having almost completely peeled away, above the carved words “The Halo Trust” with blue paint almost gone.
The Halo Trust is a UK-based organisation that continues to raise awareness of the issue of land mines and undertakes efforts to remove them from countries all over the world. They continue to work in Cambodia, as they have done for many years. I wondered what this particular signpost meant: it was clearly saying “WARNING” and I didn’t find any other sign anywhere here to suggest the area beyond the skull and crossbones had been cleared. I guessed then that it hadn’t.
Chris Moon: you may have heard of him. Now a motivational speaker and author he spent some time working for The Halo Trust in Cambodia in the 1990s, clearing mines, before he then became one of the very few Westerners to be kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge and survive to tell the tale. His is a fascinating story which you can read about in his autobiography One Step Beyond. He was working for The Halo Trust before he was severely injured by a land mine in Africa which resulted in him losing his right arm and leg . . . which didn’t stop him from becoming the first amputee ultra-runner, completing the Marathon des Sables.
As he says: “We can all go one step beyond our limits . . .”
A top tip given to me yesterday by race volunteer Meese (who’s also a medic and ultra-runner, as well as being a thoroughly joyful tall Belgian) to try and keep my overheating issues under control was: however muddy or shallow the water looks, douse your head in water with your head scarf at every opportunity. It was indeed a top tip because I’d had a great day doing it.
My final head dipping was a small flowing stream under an old, rickety wooden bridge that looked barely safe enough for running over let alone putting vehicles on it. The falls couldn’t be far now. Sure enough, the village houses started popping up and I recognised the last small downhill to the finish banner on the other side of a bridge. And I was still running! It was great to finally stop and in no time at all I’d submerged myself into the cold river feeding the Kulen waterfalls. What a delicious feeling that was: to go from hot, sweaty
and caked with 5 days of detritus to feeling somewhat cleansed and, at least temporarily, cool.
Food was the next priority. Some meat or other mixed with noodles and some veg from a local stall holder: it tasted great. Then lots of coconuts: the coconut seller wandered around with a bag full of them, chopped a ‘V’ into the top with a machete, passed a straw . . . and you drain it all away. Very refreshing.
My final shop stop was the numerous stall holders just a short wander from camp. I knew from 2015 that Pringles were around somewhere and I just needed to sniff them out. I wouldn’t normally have them any other time but now a healthy dose of flavoursome Pringles was what I was after to supply me for the rest of the day with a portion kept overnight for tomorrow’s Stage 5. Found them: BBQ flavour. They would be a very welcome snack at some point on the following day’s marathon run.
The Kulen falls is a great Stage 4 camp and Global Limits is very fortunate to have permission to use the area overnight. The Park shuts from about 5: tourists aren’t allowed in thereafter and only a handful of locals live there. It’s effectively a nature park, and Cambodians lucky enough to get there visit it as Westerners might visit their national parks. It does though mean a very early start for Stage 5 to make sure the area is cleared before the Park opens again.
The end of Stage 4 also means a little treat provided by Global Limits: someone else cooks your food in a restaurant. It’s also a time to chat and catch up with others under electric rather than headtorch light. But the evening didn’t drag on unnecessarily: we were all tired and soon shuffled back to camp for the early start.
Tents of the previous couple of nights were replaced now by the open sided wooden huts with a roof that dotted the Park. Mosquito nets suspended from the roof provided protection from the plentiful insects. Built alongside the tumbing river we were, save for the net, open to the elements. It would never get cool enough to need the sleeping bag, but the timeless river’s rhythmic bubbling noises made it easier for sleep to finally arrive.
Just a marathon and a 10 miler to go . . .
Garmin stats: Stage 4
Distance: 18.71 miles (cumulative: 100.73 miles)
Time: 5h52m01s (cumulative: 29h26m1s)
Calories burnt: 1,587 (cumulative: 10,834)
Average heart rate: 112 bpm